Feel Better Fit

Feel Better Fit

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Kinetic Chain

Picture a tow truck with a massive chain, pulling a large vehicle out of deep mud. Now, replace a few links of the chain with a weak small chain. Despite the strength of the larger links or the power of the tow truck, the job is impossible. The weaker links fail.

The body in movement is very similar to the chain of the tow truck. If any required areas are weak, the body is unable to complete the desired task. If pushed beyond capacity, the weaker links will break and injury will result. Unlike the tow truck chain, in the human "chain", when weak links are protected, other areas jump in to do the job, effectually overstraining themselves. The outcome; the weak gets weaker, the strong become over worked and tight and movement is imbalanced, risking the tearing of connective tissue and the wearing out of joint padding as bones unevenly rub across joints. Eventually, we hear cracking of ligaments and crunching of bone on bone. The resulting deterioration of joints is responsible for many aches and pains.

Osteoarthritis, degenerative disk disease, sciatic nerve pain, fibromyalgia, sometimes even migraine headaches find their true cause, or bare minimum an inflaming of symptoms related to muscle imbalance. Most of these issues can at least find some relief from strengthening and balancing the kinetic chain.

We hear alot about core strength, and rightly so. In an age of "sit and slump" at a desk, in a vehicle, in front of a TV, and even on exercise equipment, we are prone to neglect the core of our body. I'm thrilled that everywhere, people are getting up and moving their bodies!

Now, it's time to address HOW we move! The next step in overall body health and strength improvement is to create more balanced movement in general, and specifically to strengthen the "weaker links" in the kinetic chain. There are several areas of the body that trainers see neglected and in need of strengthening. Overall, I find the muscles that surround the shoulder blades to be the most common area of weakness in most individuals. Unfortunately, many common ailments are either caused or negatively affected by this inferior "link" in the chain of everyday movement.

Do your current physical activities strengthen or weaken the area between, below and around the shoulder blades? Does it really matter? What spinal position do you spend the majority of your workday in? Do you experience any shoulder pain (front, back or shooting down the side of arm), neck, middle or lower back pain?

The region of the upper back spanning from neck to just below the shoulder blade, and across the back, virtually from arm pit to arm pit is probably the weakest link in the kinetic chain for most people. This holds true, especially for those who spend long hours at a computer. It can also be a problem for athletes because, with very few exceptions, sports usually strengthen muscles in the front of the upper body more than the back.

Most workouts neglect the majority of the 17 muscles attached to each shoulder blade, resulting in an imbalance in upper body movement. An old trainer's adage holds true, "Most people only train what they can see in the mirror." Not only can we not see the upper middle back without strategically placing mirrors to do so, most people can't even reach it, due to opposing tightness in the front of the upper body! In my many years training athletes, competitors, kids, seniors, post rehab patients and average exercisers, I have found this to be the overall MOST neglected area on almost everyone and unfortunately the underlying cause of most shoulder and neck injuries. Weakness in this area also contributes to lower back problems.

Babies are born with a concave curve in the spine reflecting the snuggled fetal position. Almost immediately, an instinctive impulse to "see the world" kicks in and the infant struggles to lift the head (or when being held upright, to thrust backward). This lifting movement strengthens the muscles supporting the spine in preparation for bearing the weight of standing and eventually walking. As the muscles strengthen, the spine realigns out of its former curve and into the optimal position to evenly and safely distribute body weight for upright movement.

Unfortunately, as we age, life's burdens tend to lean us back forward into the prenatel position, wreaking havoc on the discs and bones of the spine, while also stretching out and weakening the upper back and rotator cuff muscles. The resulting slumping position rolls shoulders and entire upper body weight forward, putting tremendous pressure on the lower back. I don't even need to start discussing how much damage this does to the lower back. It would be a conservative estimate to say that 75% of people have some type of lower back malady by the time they reach their 30th birthday!

I'm guessing, right this moment, your straightening up out of the slumping position you assumed to read this. You may also be lifting your rib cage, stretching out the chest, considering that pain you've between concerned about or the stiffness in your lower back.

Now settle back into your comfy little forward slump and think about your belly. The abdominal muscles are totally at rest in this position, while the lower back is both stretched and strained simultaneously. Ideally, in any upright position, the entire core, both front and back muscles are recruited simultaneously. If we could trigger tiny lights in each muscle fiber as it's fired, we would see a sparkling light show of constant movement around the core of our body as it balances the mass weight of the head, shoulders, arms, back and chest. So, if the majority of your day, the light show (especially in the abdominals) turns off....well, you really can't expect it to easily jump into action at command, much less display an amazing six pack at the beach!

By now, I hope the importance of addressing weaker areas of the kinetic chain, is starting to take it's rightful place of importance in your quest for improving your health and fitness. Even adequate breathing is constrained by the slumping forward position that compresses the diaphragm, preventing full aspiration of the lungs. Like most insidious bad habits, this one sneaks into our sitting, standing and moving norms and then strengthens its own cycle unless we actively work on reversing it. Follow the example of the newborn, "training" the weak muscles to "see" what they're missing out on, and you will most likely be physically rejuvenated while diminishing aches and pains, achieving greater overall strength and presenting a more attractive, confident stance. Like mom said, "Stand up straight!"

I include a variety of exercises, addressing upper back and shoulder stability in my client's training programs, as well as in my own workouts. I'll be introducing a number of these, complete with tips and pictures to assist you in proper form. Of course, an awareness of good posture usually arises when we begin to address this problem area. Hopefully, this will spill over into your everyday activities and help you develop a lifestyle conducive to strengthening your entire upper body for greater balance and strength.

Here's a great suspension exercise that targets this area:

1. Hold arms dirctly above head to find starting position.
2. Keep feet in that position and drop into a squat.
3. Use lower body to raise yourself up while lifting arms above head. Near top, start using arms to complete lift, while squeezing shoulder blades back and down.
4. Afer reaching top (shoulder blades squeezed firmly back and down) return to squat position and repeat.

Keep arms straight throughout movement. Use as much lower body as needed, then allow arms to start working when they are able.

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